THE HISTORY OF THE MAKAH WHALE HUNT
No one knows how long the Makah hunted whales. Archaeological evidence points back at least 2,000 years; Makah elders say that they have hunted whales "forever." During times in Makah history, whales may have provided up to 80% of the subsistence needs for the five traditional family tribes that comprise the modern Makah.
Hunting whales was no easy task. It was made all the more difficult by the complicated rituals that the Makah hunters would observe in preparation for their hunts. Prior to the hunt, Makah tribesman would ritually bathe themselves in the icy waters of the Pacific. They would rub their skin raw on sharp mussels and barnacles. A few days before their hunt they would often dig up a fresh grave and dismember a corpse. During the hunt the they would secure the torso of the corpse on their backs-a gesture indicating their respect for their dead brethren.
On the hunt a Makah whaling crew would silently intercept a migrating whale, usually either a humpback or gray, and plunge a massive harpoon into its back. Attached to the harpoon would be a long line; attached to the line were several air bladders made of gutted seals. The hope was that the inflated seal skins would prevent the whale from diving. After the whale died, a diver would plunge into the icy water and sew the giant's mouth shut, preventing air from escaping during the tow back to the village. When the whale arrived on the beach, the whole village clamored towards the dead beast. The wives of the hunters were certainly relieved; during the entirety of the hunt they had been instructed to remain motionless in their beds, not eating, sleeping or talking.
The whale meat and blubber would be divided up among the villagers according to a strict tribal hierarchy. If it was a humpback, most of the whale would be eaten. If it was a less tasty gray whale, much of the carcass would be rendered for oil. The Makah would often potlatch much of their whale meat and oil with other Nootka tribes on the western side of Vancouver Island. This active trade of whale meat, as well as fish, seal, and other sea-derived products, naturally allowed the Makah to become savvy traders when the first Europeans began arriving in the 1700s. The Makah aggressively traded whale meat and oil through the mid 1800s. In 1855, the Makah signed a treaty with Washington territorial governor Isaac Stevens. The Treaty of Neah Bay is the only Native American treaty that explicitly granted a tribe the right to hunt whales (though it also forbade them from trading whale meat internationally).
Despite their treaty right, the Makah voluntarily abandoned whale hunting for most of the next thirty years. Makah hunters were busy plying the lucrative commercial fur seal trade. By the end of the 19th century, the fur seal population had been almost completely decimated, and the U.S. government moved to stop the trade. Many Makah hunters returned to hunting whales on a limited basis. Large scale commercial whaling operations through much of the first half of this decade had so severely depleted the North Pacific whale populations that it certainly contributed to the Makah's dwindling whaling efforts in the early 1900s. Makah sporadically hunted and traded whale until 1915, and then held a few final hunts in the mid-1920s.
That much of ancient Makah whaling culture was so clearly tied to the trade of whale meat is a fact that was not lost on Makah elders at the end of the 1980s. The twentieth century had been tough on the Makah: seasonal unemployment as high as 50%, crime, drug and alcohol abuse had all taken their toll on Makah youth.
The Makah Tribal Council began looking for a way out of their financial doldrums. Across the country many tribes had found economic salvation in casinos. Those lucky tribes who, by historical happenstance, found their reservations bisected by major interstate freeways, reaped considerable gambling profits.
But there would be no gambling profits for the Makah. Occupying the most northwestern patch of land in the continental United States, the Makah reservation is painfully remote. Despite a new multimillion dollar marina, which brings in revenue during the fishing season, few people visit the reservation.
The key to Makah economic prosperity had always been the whale trade, and the Tribal Council began to realize that a return to this trade may just prove to be the economic savior that the tribe had been waiting for. Japanese market prices pegged the value of one gray whale at anywhere from $500,000 to 1 million dollars, and since the Makah were the only Americans with a legal treaty right to hunt gray whales, they would have no competition for these dollars. According to a April 1995 memo written by Mike Tillman, Deputy Commissioner of the U.S. Delegation on Whaling Issues, both Japan and Norway had contacted the Makah about buying any potential whale meat, and the Makah were contemplating building a processing plant. But the Makah had two obstacles in their way. They were prevented from hunting whales by both the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which protected both humpback and gray whales, and the International Whaling Commission, which had instituted a moratorium banning all world commercial whaling in 1986. These obstacles were formidable, but not insurmountable. The Makah went after the Endangered Species listing first. Humpback whale populations remain almost as perilously low as when they were first placed on the list back in 1972. But gray whales had mounted a remarkable comeback. From a low of 4,000 to 5,000 in the sixties, the world gray whale population had grown to as many as 22,000 whales, close to the historic high. David Sones, assistant Makah Fisheries Director, appealed to the U.S. Government to have the gray whale removed from the Endangered Species list. And in 1994 the U.S. Government did just that.
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